Thursday, April 21, 2011

Le Comte Ory, The Help, Wolf Brother

Le Comte Ory
I saw Le Comte Ory in the cinema last weekend: the NY Metropolitan Opera production, in deferred transmission. My friend Julie from book club had seen the live broadcast a few weeks ago and she raved about it. Really, the only opera I know well is Carmen. Otherwise my knowledge and appreciation is limited to "greatest hits" arias. (Apropos, on principle I object to the three tenors singing Christmas carols and operatic muzak versions of pop tunes –there is something perverse about the whole notion.) With opera-loving friends I saw Madame Butterfly and La Traviata a few years ago. Of the two I liked La Traviata better, but both productions were dull and wooden, interspersed with moments of histrionics. I figured that opera just wasn't my thing.

The performance, however, of Rossini's Le Comte Ory, was wonderful. I think that the key to good opera is good direction to bring the performance to life. I confess that I seldom if ever listen to opera. It is the performance and the interaction between the performers that sparks the magic. No doubt people who are more knowledgeable about this art would disagree with me, but my feeling it that this is an art form that needs to be seen, and not just heard. In the same way that reading a script is not the same as seeing a performance. The direction makes a huge difference in bringing the piece to life. Opera I had seen previously tended to be either wooden, or grossly overacted. Maybe there was an awareness that this performance was being choreographed for filmed transmission, because it was both subtle and gloriously comic. Kudos to director Bartlett Sher. Juan Diego Florez was delightfully campy and lecherous as the Comte Ory. Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato had beautiful chemistry as the Countess Adele and the page Isolier. The entire production is seen as if through the eyes of a stage director, who is a presence on the stage (this is entirely an invention of the director, and it works beautifully): supervising a production set to look contemporary with Rossini's period (this piece is from 1828), orchestrating as the sets are changed, working the lights, moving props, etc. He is busy working through all of the orchestral moments, keeping this from being dead time. Le Comte Ory is a comedy and comedy depends on timing; this production nailed it. Maybe I like opera after all.

The Help
By Kathryn Stockett

Everyone seems to love this book that tells the stories of black maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. I have to say that, not being especially familiar with the south, it was an eye-opener to read about how thoroughly entrenched racial disparity still was, even in the 1960s. In terms of the sociology, I think that the author is telling a valuable story, in recounting the working conditions and social climate through the eyes of the maids.

That being said, the portrayal of the downtrodden and unbelievably noble maids was superficial and simplistic. Even Minnie's Terrible Awful (did anyone not figure it out through the repeated, heavy-handed foreshadowing?) is thoroughly unrealistic, although good for a chuckle while reading. But seriously folks, these women are portrayed as so noble that not only does their shit not stink, it apparently tastes good too.

The subplot of Skeeter's romance with Stuart Whitworth adds nothing. The mystery of what happened to Constantin is sad but anticlimactic.

Stockett has a great story, and story that needs to be told, but her characters need more complexity and realism. The book does not manage to get beyond superficiality and cliché. I think that this book appeals to people because it is easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys. Too bad life's not so simple.

Wolf Brother
By Michelle Paver

I read Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver is 24 hours. It is a children's book but intricately constructed in terms of the world that Paver has created for her tribes and their cosmovision. I heard her speak at the Hay Festival in Cartagena this January and I had been looking forward to reading this. I literally wolfed it down.

The story follows Torak, 12, who makes a vow to his father who lies dying after being attacked by a bear that he will go to the Mountain of the World Spirit on a quest to destroy the evil spirit that was responsible for his father's death.

Paver researched her book extensively, spending time with Native American tribes, the Inuit, and others, learning about their world view and concept of spirituality, from which she developed her triptych of the name spirit, the clan spirit, and the world spirit. Torak is 12. He has just lost his father. His education and knowledge of his world is incomplete. His journey towards maturity and an understanding of his world parallels our journey as readers venturing into this unknown world.

I highly recommend it as young person's lit, suitable for the 12-15 age group.
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Friday, April 8, 2011

Colombia-US Military Relations

On Thursday 7 April, an event was held at the Nogal Club in Bogota to launch the book Relaciones Militares: Colombia – Estados Unidos, jointly authored by former Colombian Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez and Democratic Pole Party Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo. The book is part of the Cara y Sello series (Heads or Tails) by Norma Publishing, which presents opposing views on different issues.

Ramirez and Robledo presented their positions on some of the issues that are addressed in the book, in a debate chaired by Semana Magazine editor Alvaro Sierra.

The defense cooperation agreement (DCA), by which the United States military would be allowed to use seven Colombian bases, polarized the region and sparked considerable debate in Colombia. The following is a running summary of what was said during the debate:

[Alvaro Sierra] Should Colombia cooperate with the United States in the military field?

[Marta Lucia Ramirez] Colombia both needs cooperation from other countries and can offer cooperation to other countries. The subject of drug trafficking is one that transcends national borders and as such it requires international answers. In Colombia drug trafficking has been a problem of such magnitude that it has threatened democracy and the institutions of the state.

[Jorge Enrique Robledo] Colombia should not aim for isolation, but the country should question the way that it handles its relations with the United States. Colombia has not made much effort to change the nature of this relationship.

[Sierra] How would you change the relationship?

[Robledo] I would stress the need for a relationship between equals, with respect for sovereignty and non-intervention.

[Ramirez] I ask what would have happened to Colombia if the country had not been the beneficiary of Plan Colombia. Both Plan Colombia and the DCA were initiatives of the Colombian Government. The proposal to allow the US Military to use Colombian bases was intended to have dissuasive effects.

[Robledo] Plan Colombia did not just address strengthening for Colombia's military, it included a series of other conditions, such as the management of the economy and how peace accords with the guerrillas should be handled. Should the free trade agreement (FTA) that President Santos is discussing with President Obama include other conditions? Colombia should manage its affairs by itself.

[Ramirez] Colombia's military strategy has never depended on outsiders. Plan Colombia strengthened Colombia's military. The Colombian Government is responsible for overseeing the objectives of cooperation and it feels that the benefits of this cooperation have been worthwhile. The US military presence in Colombia under the DCA would be for training, not operations.

[Robledo] The social aspects of Plan Colombia have been a failure. The impact on drug trafficking is dubious too. According to the economic theory, reducing the supply would boost prices and therefore enable fewer people to consume narcotics; the reduced supply, did boost prices, but this kept income steady for drug traffickers.

[Ramirez] As an international problem, drug trafficking should be fought with an international approach. The number of hectares where coca is grown has been reduced by half. From 700 tons of cocaine being processed per year, the amount has fallen to 260 tons, although ideally the amount should be none. Production is declining in Colombia, although it is on the rise in other countries. Plan Colombia was a Colombian Government initiative, with social and development objectives; not just a plan to fight the drug trade. Nonetheless, it has not been as effective as it should have been in promoting and developing industry and production.

[Robledo] Plan Colombia undermined agriculture in Colombia because the policy of economic opening and competition caused Colombian farms to fail.

[Ramirez] The problems in rural Colombia are the result of four decades of neglect, abandonment, and the lack of state presence.

[Sierra] Was the DCA the continuation of the previous military agreement, or was it a new agreement that needed to be approved by the Colombian Congress?

[Robledo] According to the Constitution, the presence of foreign bases on Colombian land would be considered unconstitutional. Under the DCA, the United States would have established FOLs (forward operating locations), which would be autonomous US bases, as part of the "US strategy for the control of Latin America and the world."

[Ramirez] These would not have been US bases; the agreement was to allow US presence on Colombian bases, and under Colombian command.

[Robledo] Any foreign soldier in a country represents the interests of his country, and follows his country's established chain of command. These are not "Vatican bases" that we are talking about. The Constitutional Court ruling that disallowed the DCA made it clear that the US forces would have operated with full autonomy on the bases and without Colombian control.

[Sierra] What would be the price of the DCA in terms of Colombia's diplomatic relations in the region?

[Robledo] The bases would signify a threat to the entire region because they represent the US strategy to exercise control in Latin America and the world.

[Ramirez] The bases were a political strategy for dissuasion. Limits and controls exist on what sort of US actions would be allowed. Surveillance operations should be permitted. Colombia also has military cooperation agreements with several border countries and that allow joint military operations. Colombia needs military strengthening to fight the guerrillas, drug trafficking, and to ensure security for Colombians.

[Robledo] Colombia's relationship to the United States is colored by the fact that the United States is an "empire" with empirical strategies. The challenge for Colombia is to find a different way of relating to the United States, because right now all aid comes with conditions, and the aid that Colombia has received has led to the decline of agricultural and industrial production.

[Ramirez] It is the job of diplomacy to defend the interests of the state, and without warring with the neighbourhood. The state has the responsibility to guarantee the life, freedom, and wellbeing of it citizens, and guaranteeing security is the basis for this. Colombia needs more and better cooperation, with Colombia setting the agenda.


My Commentary

Both speakers made some good points. Like Robledo, I agree that it in ingenuous to believe that the US military mission in Colombia would be limited to merely serving Colombia's need, rather than pursuing the intelligence and, more likely than not, the operations inherent to the US agenda. That being said, Ramirez is correct in stating US military cooperation has enabled Colombia to become more effective at fighting the guerrilla movements and the drug trade.

Robledo's criticism that US aid has led to the impoverishment of the Colombian countryside because of conditions concerning economic and trade policy is debatable. The shift toward economic opening began in the early 1990s, predating Plan Colombia, although IMF and World Bank policy at the time were clear in their goals of eliminating trade barriers and fomenting free market competition. Still the transition to competition comes as a rude shock: It takes investment, training, strategy, and infrastructure to make a country competitive, but that's the Colombian Government's responsibility. Furthermore the debate on whether free trade benefits a country overall was not the subject of the debate, which was military cooperation.

Ramirez rightly noted that the countryside cannot thrive and prosper when basic safety and security are not guaranteed. Reinforcing the state military apparatus in Colombia has enabled the government to restore control to areas that were out of its hands, and bring in social programs that it previously could not provide. You cannot serve the population unless you have secured the area.

Diplomacy does not happen in a vacuum. It is tricky is to make nice with the neighbors and stay on the good side of the United States, while being clear about national priorities. But President Santos seems to be on the right track.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Piano Teacher

The Piano TeacherThe Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A strangely compelling book, considering that I didn't really care much for the main characters. Lots of rich descriptive detail about ex-pat and upper crust Chinese life in colonial Hong Kong, and life in the camp under Japanese occupation. In this sense the setting was richly written, but I cannot say the same for the characters.

The relationship between the jaded and cynical middle-aged man Will Truesdale with the recently arrived ingénue Claire Pendleton is somewhat inexplicable. If Will wants to find someone who is nothing like the woman he lost, Trudy Liang, then he achieves that purpose, but the reasons why he focuses his attention on Claire in particular are never made particularly clear. In fact he despises her naivety and romantic innocence.

Despite the title, this book is about Will, not about Claire the piano teacher. Claire is merely used as a device to reveal the story about how Will lost Trudy, or at least why he feels that he lost her because of his inability to protect her. Trudy, however, was always the wiser, savvier one, who understood the subtleties of Hong Kong life and what the Japanese occupation entailed. Will was always over his head, both in the society and the relationship.

That Trudy was also vulnerable. Born of a Chinese father and Portuguese mother, she was considered a Eurasian, and was never accepted by Chinese or British society, although she was tolerated for her wealth, extravagance and cutting wit. Her character is reflected in her physical appearance: whippet-thin, sharp, angular, strong and yet brittle, a contrast to the plump, complacent English matrons, or the taitais of Chinese high society. The disappearance of her mother at a young age, and her father's removal to Macao early on in the war, underline her lack of support and vulnerability.

Trudy's reasons for seducing Will are as vague and his reasons for seducing Claire. Will appears to be a cynic and disillusioned with life, as someone who has had no control over his destiny. His urge seems to be to destroy Claire's naivety, innocence, and bland beauty in revenge for his own loss. In the intensity of the relationship Claire realizes the falseness of her marriage to Martin. She has used him to escape from the tedium of her middle class existence and now she is seduced by the exotic tropical ambiance of Hong Kong. Several people remark her how English women usually wilt in the heat, but Claire is flourishing. She allows herself to explore the darker, sultrier side of her personality.

Trudy was an interesting character, as was her cousin Dominick, and Victor and Melody Chen. Unfortunately the main characters in the book, Will Truesdale and Claire Pendleton are not that interesting.

The need to wrap up the story and reveal the mystery produces an ending that is forced and contrived. The characters had great potential and deserved better handling than this.

Some inexplicable details in the story:
-Why was Will attracted to Claire?
-Why would Edwina Storch think it appropriate to tell Claire the secret of the Crown Collection, and reveal the story of Will and Trudy?
-How could it possibly be construed that Will was blackmailing the Chens?
-If Victor Chen were worried that Will might reveal secrets from his past, why wouldn't Chen have him killed? It wouldn't be the first time that he arranged for someone to go missing.

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